Centrino: Examining Intel's Wireless Option

First Published: Smart Computing Reference Series
Date Published: March 2004
By Kevin Savetz

If you've gone shopping for a notebook computer lately, you've probably noticed the word "Centrino" plastered on a fair number of those notebooks. Centrino sounds like it might be a quaint city in Italy or maybe an atomic particle. You may have a vague idea that Centrino has something to do with wireless networking, which it does.

What is Centrino, really? Centrino is the brand name for notebooks that have an Intel CPU, chipset, and wireless networking chips. Centrino-branded notebooks are available from all major hardware manufacturers with a wide variety of prices and specifications.

The Centrino brand means that three components are in a notebook: the Intel Pentium M processor, the Intel 855 chipset family, and the Intel Pro/Wireless 2100 network connection. Those three components are not integrated (they're not physically brought together into a single chip). "Intel wants users to think of Intel's platform; you're buying more than just a wireless processor. You're buying a system designed with mobility in mind," Shane Rau, an analyst at IDC, said.

You can certainly buy a new notebook with wireless connectivity that doesn't have the Centrino brand or add a wireless card to your existing notebook. Intel's spin is that those non-Centrino-branded systems "may not deliver the same computing performance, Wi-Fi performance and range, battery life, lightweightness, or interoperability with other products and service providers that notebooks based on Intel Centrino mobile technology can deliver."

On one level, this is nothing more than marketing spin. There are wonderful AMD-based notebooks with great wireless performance, and installing a Wi-Fi card in your existing notebook will almost certainly work just fine. Then again, if you happen to be shopping for a new Intel-based notebook, it won't hurt to choose one with the Centrino stamp.

"There's confusion in the marketplace about what the term Centrino means," Rau said. "It is a brand representing three different Intel products. It's a new concept in PC semiconductors to have one brand covering three different types of components to go into a mobile PC."

"There are wireless LAN chipset solutions from other companies, so there's nothing inherently innovative, different, or unique about Intel's wireless LAN solution," Rau said. "Intel is using its market share in the markets for the other products to leverage its way into the wireless LAN chipset market."

Let's take a closer look at Centrino's three components.

The Processor

The Pentium M (the M stands for mobile) is a processor designed specifically for notebook computers. Currently available at speeds of up to 1.7GHz, the Pentium M chip is designed with low power requirements, meaning it won't drain your notebook's battery as fast as a CPU designed for desktop use would.

Like a car that uses more gas as it goes faster, the Pentium M chip can speed up or throttle back depending on how much processor power you need from moment to moment. When you need a lot of computing power, the chip dynamically shifts into high gear. But when you don't need as much processor oomph (for instance, when you're just typing an email message or a Word document) the chip slows down to 600MHz, saving precious battery power.

The Chipset

The second part of Centrino is the chipset, the chips that support the CPU. The chipset does a variety of tasks, including running video output, talking to RAM, controlling the hard drive, and other functions. Centrino notebooks use Intel's 855 chipset series, which is designed specifically to work with the Pentium M processor.

Many worthwhile features are built into the 855 chipset, and shoppers can rest assured that any Centrino-branded notebook will have all of them. These features include support for fast USB 2.0 peripheral connections, the ability to work with up to 2GB of double-data-rate memory, plus onboard audio, LAN, and modem interfaces. The GM version supports powerful 3D graphics and can run an external monitor in addition to the notebook's screen.

The Wireless Network Connection

The third component of Centrino, the Intel Pro/Wireless 2100 network connection, is the circuitry that provides wireless networking. Three versions are available, which support the three main varieties of wireless networking. One version supports 802.11b, another supports 802.11a and 802.11b, and the last supports 802.11b and 802.11g.

All Centrino computers support 802.11b, the most common wireless networking protocol, found in airports, conference halls, and coffee shops around the world. Your only option is, do you want 802.11a or 802.11g support, as well? 802.11a is primarily used in private businesses but not often in hotels, airports, and other hotspots that are open to the public. If you'll be accessing the Internet from public places, don't worry about 802.11a.

802.11g is about five times faster than b but is backward-compatible with it, making g the best choice for many people. If your notebook supports 802.11b and g, you'll be able to use the wireless access points available in most public places, and you'll be able to enjoy high-speed networking when you're within range of an 802.11g network.

If you want all three protocols (802.11a, b, and g) in your Centrino notebook, you'll have to wait. Intel says that it will release a tri-band version but has not set a release date.

When you're shopping for a Centrino notebook, find out from the manufacturer which of the three wireless protocols is supported in the model that you're considering.

Consider the Alternatives

There are reasons to consider alternatives to Centrino. The most notable is that other vendors offer equipment that supports all three wireless protocols. You could choose, for instance, a notebook with an Intel processor and a Broadcom wireless chipset that offers all three wireless protocols. It wouldn't have the Centrino label, but it would offer the best of all wireless worlds.

In addition, some other wireless hardware providers have extended the range and speed of their wireless connections beyond the basic 802.11 specifications. GlobespanVirata, for instance, has released an 802.11g card that runs at 140Mbps (megabits per second), 40 times faster than standard 802.11b cards. Likewise, Atheros manufactures a card that works at up to 108Mbps.

"Intel is not bringing any real wireless technology to the table. They are just trying to play catch-up, going about it at a very slow approach," Ken Furer, an analyst at IDC, said.

"Many enterprises want to go with a future-proofed a-b-g solutions. We expect PC original equipment manufacturers will be going that way," he said.

Battery life may be where Centrino shows an advantage over other hardware configurations. All things being equal, a Centrino system may be able to provide more minutes of battery power than a non-Centrino system. "There can be tweaks in terms of battery life or wireless range or throughput that will vary from solution to solution. Intel can get a little more battery life because of the way Centrino is integrated. But overall I wouldn't say they have the strongest or best-performing solution," Furer said.

Putting It All Together

Buying and using a Centrino notebook should be like eating a meal at a familiar restaurant chain: you know exactly what you're getting when you order. Wireless performance should be consistent from one machine to the next. You're not going to have compatibility problems between the Wi-Fi card and the rest of the PC because they were designed to work together. In addition, Intel tests each system configuration. An Intel spokesperson said, "As part of Intel's Wireless Verification Program, Intel Centrino mobile technology has been tested with thousands of access point devices, software combinations, hotspot locations, and wireless service providers to ensure they are all compatible."

That doesn't mean that all Centrino computers are exactly alike. Centrino only specifies how the CPU, wireless, and chipset components work together. Other details of the system (the size of the hard drive, amount of memory, the operating system that's installed, and myriad other features) are up to the manufacturer.

There are countless variables to consider when shopping for a notebook for your small business. In the end, the Centrino brand alone shouldn't make or break your decision about whether a particular model is right for you. Instead, use it as a helpful guidepost: when you see the Centrino label, you'll immediately have a good idea of that machine's capabilities. You can use that information as a point of comparison as you evaluate Centrino and non-Centrino notebooks.

Reprinted with permission from Smart Computing magazine.

Articles by Kevin Savetz